Don Juan by Lord Byron: Wrap-up

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Lord Byron died before he was able to finish writing Don Juan, which is too bad because although it did kind of drag in the middle, it started to get good again towards the end. Byron kind of just made Don Juan up as he went, but in a letter, he did indicate that he had a vague overall plan:

I meant to take him the tour of Europe, with a proper mixture of siege, battle, and adventure, and to make him finish as Anacharsis Cloots in the French Revolution…. I meant to have made him a Cavalier Servente in Italy, and a cause for a divorce in England, and a Sentimental Werther-faced man in Germany, so as to show the different ridicules of the society in each of these countries, and to have displayed him gradually gâté and blasé, as he grew older, as is natural. But I had not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest.

It’s too bad we never got to see Don Juan in France, Italy, Germany, or any of the other countries he didn’t get a chance to visit. There was so much more ground to cover. Oh well.

I have to admit, I thought Byron had promised Don Juan would end up in Hell early on. Looking back on it, I must have been thinking of this passage:

My poem’s epic, and is meant to be
Divided in twelve books; each book containing,
With love, and war, a heavy gale at sea,
A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,
New characters; the episodes are three:
A panorama view of Hell’s in training,
After the style of Virgil and of Homer,
So that my name of Epic’s no misnomer.
-Canto 1, Stanza 200

Virgil’s hero Aeneas went to Hades, as did Homer’s hero Odysseus, so I guess I was expecting Don Juan to do the same at some point based on this stanza. I was pretty disappointed when I found out Byron never wrote a canto devoted to Don Juan visiting Hell.

Now that I’ve finished reading the complete works of Lord Byron, I’d say Don Juan is certainly his masterpiece. It’s interesting that Byron took a figure famous for being a seducer of women and instead turned him into someone who was constantly seduced by women. And not only that, but his lovers are all older women.

Although it wasn’t finished, Don Juan does give us pretty much everything: romance, comedy, tragedy, horror, war, death, descriptions of nature, a travel narrative with exotic locations, hypocrisy, cannibalism, cross-dressing, slavery, religious and political commentary, breaking the fourth wall, musings on philosophy and morality, dream sequences, descriptions of medicine and food, science, high society, a ghost story, and digressions on pretty much anything Byron was thinking of at the time.

When I first decided to do a blog review of every canto, I was part way through canto 2 and I had expected every canto to be as substantive as the first two. Looking back on the whole thing, I think the first six cantos are the best. There’s plenty of plot momentum with Juan’s mother sending him away from Spain in disgrace after an affair, a shipwreck landing him in Greece where he falls hopelessly in love again only to be sold into slavery by his lover’s father. Don Juan winding up dressed as a woman in a Turkish harem was pretty funny too.

I think the quality starts to dip a bit by canto 7. Lord Byron seems to throw narrative aside and we’re suddenly in the midst of a battle and Don Juan doesn’t even show up until the end. Worse, we don’t even get an explanation of how Juan avoids the death sentence that was looming over him at the end of the sixth canto. He’s just suddenly in another city. Still cantos 7 and 8 are both very readable with their brutal yet mocking descriptions of war.

Cantos 9 and 10 about Juan’s relationship with Catherine the Great are probably the weakest in the poem, and they also seemed to be the shortest. Byron just seemed to want to get through them as quickly as possible. Juan then spends the rest of the poem in England, but not much happens. We get several short digression-filled cantos largely lacking in narrative momentum.

Canto 16 gives us a ghost story and returns to the quality of the first six cantos. Too bad we didn’t get more of this before the author’s death. If I were to read this again, I’d definitely skip cantos 9 through 15.

I’ll end with a quote I liked from the unfinished canto 17:

Great Galileo was debarred the sun,
Because he fixed it, and to stop his talking
How earth could round the solar orbit run,
Found his own legs embargoed from mere walking.
The man was well nigh dead, ere men begun
To think his skull had not some need of caulking,
But now it seems he’s right, his notion just,
No doubt a consolation to his dust.
-Canto XVII, Stanza 8

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